Seventy Years After Brown, Our Work to Advance Equal Justice Continues

Courts Resources 05.16.24

Seventy years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that the shameful doctrine of “separate but equal” was inherently unequal and unconstitutional. In its unanimous ruling, the Court struck down legal segregation in the nation’s public schools, serving as a significant catalyst for the civil rights movement.

The anniversary of this landmark decision serves as an important reminder that civil rights work is far from over and that our nation still hasn’t achieved the promise of Brown. While we have a lot of work to do, it is noteworthy that lawyers who were instrumental to the success of Brown were later confirmed to serve as lifetime judges on our federal bench. Civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) in 1940, argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court and was later appointed to the Second Circuit — the first Black judge to serve on that court — before becoming the first Black justice to serve on the Supreme Court. Civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley, one of the first women to work as an attorney at LDF, wrote the original complaint in the case, and she later became the first Black woman to serve as a lifetime federal judge — serving for nearly four decades on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Judges of color and judges with significant civil rights experience — like Justice Marshall and Judge Motley — have for far too long been excluded from service on the federal bench. Today, we are working to ensure that individuals from underrepresented demographic and professional backgrounds are being selected, nominated, and confirmed to the federal judiciary. And we are making progress: Already during the Biden administration, there have been 124 lifetime confirmations of judges of color and 85 lifetime confirmations of individuals who were public defenders or civil rights lawyers (or both) or who otherwise dedicated a significant portion of their careers to protecting people’s civil and human rights.

This has included exceptional nominees who have been appointed to the federal bench directly from our nation’s civil rights organizations. During this administration, we’ve seen the nomination and confirmation of incredible civil rights lawyers like Nancy Abudu (Southern Poverty Law Center), Nusrat Choudhury and Dale Ho (ACLU), Natasha Merle (NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund), Myrna Pérez (Brennan Center for Justice), Nicole Berner (Service Employees International Union), Araceli Martínez-Olguín (National Immigration Law Center), Julie Rikelman (Center for Reproductive Rights), Mónica Ramírez Almadani (Public Counsel), Sarah Geraghty (Southern Center for Human Rights), Nina Morrison (Innocence Project), and many other tremendous civil rights lawyers who are deeply committed to equal justice for all.

These confirmations matter and would have been unthinkable when Brown was decided 70 years ago. At the time in 1954, only two people of color had ever been confirmed by the Senate to serve as federal judges. Only one (William H. Hastie, Third Circuit) was serving a lifetime appointment. Prior to his judicial service, Judge Hastie taught Thurgood Marshall at Howard University School of Law and was the only lifetime judge of color serving when his former student — and future Supreme Court justice — argued the landmark case.

Though we are still working to fully achieve the promise of Brown, the decision was hugely important for the civil rights movement and paved the way for advances in desegregating public accommodations, housing, and institutions of higher education. These important and hard-fought civil rights achievements helped to open up opportunities for generations of future federal judges, including the historic number of judges of color who are being nominated and confirmed today. This includes the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman and first former public defender to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, and a number of other incredible judges of color who have made history and brought tremendously important professional experience to the judiciary. This critical progress must continue.

As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and reflect on the work ahead to fulfill its promise, we also celebrate the progress we’re making toward building an equal justice judiciary and commit to doing the work to ensure our federal courts live up to their promise. Communities across the nation depend on federal courts and federal judges to fairly administer justice for all people in America — and we must do everything to ensure that they do.